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101 people died from coronavirus at N.J. veterans home, state confirms. Lawmakers demand answers.

Shari Davis at a rally in September holds a picture of her mother Joan Williams who died at Menlo Park Memorial Veterans Home, where an estimated 101 residents have died of COVID-19. (Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media/TNS)

Two top lawmakers are renewing calls for the ouster of the state-operated Menlo Park Memorial Veterans Home’s CEO Thursday in the wake of disclosures that the COVID-19 death toll there has risen to 101 people.

The disclosures by the state Department of Health means 1 out of every 3 veterans or their spouses at the 312-bed, state-run facility in Edison has died from the virus since the pandemic began. Menlo Park now has more coronavirus deaths than any nursing home in the state. The Paramus Veterans Memorial Home now has 89 deaths.

The state Health Department said that in addition to the 64 fatalities that had been previously reported — a figure that has been included on the state website for months — another 39 Menlo Park residents who died are “probable” COVID-19 fatalities. The state defines a probable case as one that lacks a lab test confirming the virus, but symptoms of COVID-19 are mentioned in an autopsy or death certificate, health department spokespeople said.

NorthJersey.com reported Thursday that Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s Office is investigating both Menlo Park’s and Paramus’ handling of the pandemic. The news organization cited a Sept. 16 memo from a Department of Military and Veterans Affairs official asking for records to satisfy a request from the Attorney General’s Office, which earlier this year announced it was conducting an investigation into deaths at N.J. long term care facilities, including Paramus and Menlo Park. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office declined comment.

State Sen Joseph Vitale D-Middlesex, chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, said he planned on Friday to share with the attorney general the notes from the “dozens of calls and emails” his office has received and uncovered about Menlo Park.

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Vitale said he was saddened but “not surprised about the larger death count, given my understanding of the way the outbreak was handled at that facility.” He renewed his call for Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to remove CEO Elizabeth Schiff-Heedles.

“Literally one third of the men and women (from Menlo Park) are dead because of COVID-19, mostly attributed to lack of infection control protocols that would have one in place had those who were in charge of the facility understood public health and medicine,” Vitale said.

Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex echoed calls that those running the facility should immediately be removed.

“One hundred and one lives lost at one facility. I’m having difficulty coming up with the proper expression. There has to be some responsibility,” he said.

A spokesman for the Division of Military and Veterans Affairs declined to say which records the office was turning over to the Attorney General’s Office. “I cannot answer the question about requested records due to ongoing litigation,” said the spokesman, Kryn Westhoven.

Attorney Paul da Costa of Roseland, who represents the families of more than 50 residents at Menlo Park and Paramus, said the disclosures were not surprising based on what he has learned from in recent months from both those who lost loved ones and staff members who work at the two nursing homes.

“It’s disturbing because it’s only coming out now and only coming out because the media is keeping their feet to the fire,” he said. “I can only guarantee this isn’t the end for the search for the truth.”

Last month, veterans groups along with dozens of healthcare workers and relatives of residents who died at Menlo Park held a vigil outside, demanding an investigation into the deaths of residents and staff members.

Shirley Suddoth Lewis, an LPN who recently retired from Menlo Park, said it was clear to her for months that administrators at the nursing home were undercounting COVID-19 deaths.

“I had been saying it was over 100 who died,” she said.

Recalling her time there over the last several months, she said residents were not being tested, and would be transferred to hospitals without being counted as COVID-positive.

“They claimed they were following CDC guidelines,” she said. “It was a nightmare. It didn’t get better until the VA nurses came.”

In April, 90 nurses from the federal Veterans Affairs were deployed to the state veterans homes in Paramus and Menlo Park at the request of Gov. Phil Murphy to assist the staffs there, as the death toll in the two facilities began rising from the coronavirus and many nurses and aides also were found to be positive for the virus.

When they left, she said the situation in the nursing home again deteriorated.

Lewis, who is president of AFCME Local 979 — which represents nurses, certified nurse aides, kitchen and recreation staff — worked at Menlo Park for 36 years and said administrators dropped the ball on residents and staff as the pandemic swept through the facility.

She wonders now, with investigators about to descend on the facility, whether charts will be doctored.

“People lost their loved ones. The people here who died belonged to someone. We were their families for those who had families who could not come,” she said. “Someone needs to be held accountable. The bottom line is they don’t care.”

“There has not been enough movement to improve things there,” said Gary White of the Marine Corps League, who had helped organize the protest.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Division on Civil Rights is also investigating whether New Jersey issued ay orders that “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents” during the coronavirus pandemic.

New Jersey has the highest number per capita of coronavirus deaths, according to federal data.

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© 2020 NJ Advance Media Group